500 E. Main St., Ventura
$5 – $35
This is a story about before and after. Before, it was called Cafe Bariloche, named after the town of Bariloche in Argentina. After changing ownership earlier this year, the restaurant is now simply called Bariloche. Before, it was a place where you could go out for a nice meal and a bottle of wine without breaking the bank. After, the prices seem to have gone up a bit. Before, it was unassuming and comfortable in its own skin. After, it seems to be more upscale, with the addition of live music and organic wines. Yet, I still had a wonderful time dining with friends in this after-version of Bariloche — wine was flowing, live music played softly, and the bounty of South American food just kept on coming.
The wine list is impressive, full of choices from Chile, Argentina and Spain. My friend, a Bariloche regular, noticed that the bottles have gone up in price. Her favorite, the Carmenere La Playa from Chile, went up from $22 to $38. We opted for the house recommendation, Cabernet La Playa for $30. Unfortunately, they were out, but brought us a bottle of Don Rodolfo cabernet from Argentina ($38) for $30. The wine was smooth, dark, and elicited a boisterous yum from the table when we first tasted it.
We started with Ecuadorian ceviche ($12) and two empanadas ($5 each). The ceviche was sitting pretty in a martini glass, on a plate dusted with paprika and parsley. The shrimp were plentiful, but swimming in a red sauce that was overly sweet and lacking in the citrus flavors that define a typical ceviche. When we asked about the ingredients in this thick sauce, we were a bit disappointed to learn that it was actually ketchup that we tasted. Now, you simply can’t go wrong with Bariloche’s brilliant little empanadas. These rustic pouches come stuffed with beef, chicken, seafood or vegetables. We ordered the Chilean beef — with onions, raisins and olives — and the corn empanada with squash, onions and spices. The beef was shredded, simple, and the firm texture was the perfect match to the thick crust. The corn and squash filling, on the other hand, was soft, sweet and the color of sunshine.
Each of the entrees comes with a choice of salad. While my Caesar was basic with its croutons and parmesan, the Bariloche salad was full of surprises. It was topped with things both sweet and savory — carrots, tomatoes, red onions, apples, grapes, pine nuts, feta — and finished with a vinaigrette. While my friend found it to be overdressed, I was too busy enjoying the combo of flavors to mind. Another salad star is the steaming hot Brazilian kale, — sautéed with olive oil and garlic and topped with pine nuts and feta. This is one of those rare vegetable dishes that you devour like a big bowl of chili on a cold night, the kind of dish that leaves you plotting ways to recreate it in your own kitchen.
My friend, the Bariloche regular, ordered her favorite dish, the chicken Caribe ($16). Big chunks of spicy, darkly browned chicken breast are drizzled with cilantro oil and served with rice and vegetables. The hit of the Caribbean spices and the zing of the cilantro oil are truly unique. While at the after-version of Bariloche the serving was a bit smaller and the chicken a bit oilier, this dish is still a force to be reckoned with. Wooed by the description of the moceka sauce made with coconut milk and lemon, my other friend ordered the Brazilian-style salmon ($19). The salmon was tender and cooked perfectly, but she thought the sauce was heavy on the salt and found herself gravitating more to the vegetables, rice and beans on her plate. I liked the sauce but thought there was too much of it, overpowering a fine piece of fish that really only needed a simple finish.
Wanting to sample a dish from the decadent-looking specials, I chose the sarsuela Ecuatoriana ($26), a South American version of cioppino, or fish stew. The thick, tomato-based broth had just the right amount of spice and was filled with an awe-inspiring amount of freshly cooked shrimp, scallops, fish, clams and mussels. While it was grand, some of the seafood was overcooked, and it could have used a sprinkling of parsley to jazz it up. Now, I’m not normally fussy, especially when it comes to something like garnishes, but for $26, I feel like I’m entitled to a little jazziness to my dish.
So, clearly some things have changed between the before Bariloche and the after. But do you remember how sad you were when you saw that it had closed earlier this year? Now, it is open again, and we can still get the empanadas, chicken Caribe, unique salads and the South American wines that define this restaurant. Whether you go for lunch or a fun night out on the town, this restaurant is still a gift to downtown Ventura.